ON a Saturday every August, sado-masochists march through Soho in London, “demonstrating with cracking whips, outlandish leather and latex costumes, handcuffs and chains their right to practise their personal delights, carefully escorted by politely attendant policemen”.
The annual event – doubtless a spectacle to some – represents for Cape Town urban designer Guy Briggs an essence of city life – the space cities typically provide for people to feel free enough to be just who they are.
“If this were attempted in a small town,” he wrote in a paper in 2002, “it would cause a riot. The city enables this and many other freedoms.”
The detail may be misleading: Briggs’s scholarly contribution to the Fifth Symposium of the International Urban Planning and Environment Association at Christ Church, Oxford, was not about the virtues of fringe sexual proclivities, but “future sustainable city forms”.
If that doesn’t sound as thrilling as whips, leather and latex, creating or recreating cities that are freer, inclusive and humane and allow for maximum levels of economic and social transaction are the ones, he argues, that will not only survive today’s unprecedented levels of urbanisation, but thrive.
The principle is as germane for London as Cape Town.
As Briggs wrote 14 years ago, the “greatest hurdles to achieving sustainability lie neither in the environmental nor economic spheres, but in the social” and “achieving social sustainability, or equity, is a prerequisite both for environmental and economic sustainability”.
This seems self-evident and nobody would quibble, not with the theoretical proposition anyway. But the problem for Briggs – who returned to South Africa in 2010 to settle in Cape Town after 12 years in London – is the “dysfunctional” apartheid cityscape he remembered from the 1990s remains little changed, despite the 20 years available for the task since the end of apartheid. It’s not a cheap shot.
He acknowledges Cape Town’s downtown has become a “thriving, vibrant urban environment”, changed from “being a centre where ‘other races’ were only ever guests, to a city that is owned by all its citizens”. Yet, he observes, “we still all go home to different parts of town”. And that is a legacy of “how successfully Cape Town was planned and built in the second half of 20th century”.
Planning is the key to his thesis – now and when he wrote the paper in 2002.
As he put it then, the “intelligence” of a city “lies in the adaptability of its fabric, processes and systems”. He noted then (of Britain) – and property owners in Cape Town will recognise the gist – “current indicators of the effectiveness of the planning system focus on the speed of processing applications (which were) hugely irrelevant measures, focusing on short-term convenience, rather than on long or even medium-term ends”.
The challenge was to render policy “as a brief, rather than as proscription – setting out ambitions, defining targets and articulating quality levels, instead of defining how things should or should not be done”. What was wanted was a shift from a “directive” to a “facilitatory” planning framework.
Briggs does believe Cape Town is changing incrementally for the better, but that the real difference in the urban landscape has yet to happen, largely because the planning process is still anachronistically rooted in the past.
Briggs, a director and head of urban design at dhk architects, was born and bred in Joburg. After his initial architectural studies at UCT from the late 1980s, he went to Europe, working as an intern in Basel, Switzerland and Berlin. After a spell at home – “doing private residential stuff”, but realising he was more interested in “becoming involved in making cities” – he enrolled at the London School of Economics (LSE) for a “revolutionary” course in urban design coupled with social science.
“Most urban design had been concerned with form, whereas the LSE course brought form, the stuff we see, together with all the stuff we don’t see – the economics and an understanding of how society works.”
He put his training to good use when, after joining a global firm in London, he helped craft the master plan for the London Olympics (the bid won on the grounds of being a catalyst for urban regeneration) and designed a new post-highway business and cultural district on Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi.
He has since worked extensively in urban design in Cape Town, Gauteng and elsewhere in Africa. He is part of the multi-partner Density Syndicate, responsible for crafting a regeneration, densification and integration strategy for Cape Town’s inner city.
The trouble with the 20th century, he said this week, was “we became very scientific” about making cities, disaggregating functions and creating separate spaces for different land uses – offices here, factories there, houses in “dormitory” suburbs and freeways linking them, as the car became predominant.
“That’s the origin of land-use zoning and planning, which still drives how we make cities today.”
In South Africa “we have the double whammy of apartheid, which successfully spatially entrenched racial, social and economic discrimination”.
“And the structure of the city promotes it,” he said.
Citing a recent study in Masiphumelele – investigating the scope of a shack-farming homeowner to upgrade her property by providing built accommodation for tenants and thus a more sustainable income and a better neighbourhood – it was found while the owner had a “not unreasonable budget”, her monthly bills (including rates of “more than half the rates on a Rondebosch or Rosebank property, when the property is one third to one sixth of the size” and other high insurance and financing costs associated with living in a township) meant she was “disproportionately squeezed”.
“So what the structure of the city does, coupled with our financing, insuring and other economic structures, is spatially entrench poverty.”
Briggs noted government at all levels recognised this problem, “and there are many explorations under way on how to do it differently”. Incremental change was happening but, although “it’s a battle won through small shifts rather than radical change, it’s arguably happening too slowly”.
One of the biggest stumbling blocks was probably the complex nature of public landownership – large, potentially game-changing tracts of land held by various government departments. But Briggs is convinced significant change could come from overhauling zoning regulations.
“We’ve had lots of debate about Rhodes and decolonising universities – and I believe we should start to decolonise our planning system. It’s a relic of the British Empire, founded on controlling what you should or – mainly – what you shouldn’t do. It’s also predicated on safeguarding private property rights, which is well and good, but there is insufficient enablement and facilitation.”
Instead of replicating apartheid-era townships, the government could more effectively concentrate on smaller-scale, high-quality social housing in strategic locations.